A Primer on Leptospirosis

Of all the vaccination questions I receive, the most common one is from folks questioning whether or not to vaccinate their dogs for Leptospirosis.  And I am so pleased they are asking- I love when people recognize that simply handing their dog over for “the works” in response to a vaccination reminder card (or these days, perhaps an email reminder) simply doesn’t make sense.

Unlike canine distemper and parvovirus- infectious bad guys that are ubiquitous in the environment and against which all dogs should receive vaccine protection- not all dogs come into contact with Leptospirosis.  Exposure is truly dependent on where you and your dog live and his or her extracurricular activities- in medical jargon this is referred to as “biolifestyle”.  Leptospirosis organisms are bacteria that thrive in warmer, wetter climates.  Wild animals (particularly deer and rodents) and some domesticated animals (cows, sheep, pigs) can be Leptospirosis carriers. Although infected, they manage to maintain good health while shedding Leptospirosis organisms in their urine.  Dogs can develop the disease by coming into contact with the infected urine or urine contaminated soil, water, food, or bedding.  So, if your dog’s biolifestyle includes roaming on rural property or drinking from creeks, streams, lakes, or rivers the potential for exposure to Leptospirosis is far greater than if your pup is a couch potato and your yard is devoid of trespassing wildlife.

Not all dogs become sick when exposed to Leptospirosis, but for those that do, the results can be devastating.  Symptoms associated with kidney failure (lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite) are most common.  The liver and lungs are also targets for this disease.  Your veterinarian will suspect Leptospirosis based on the history your provide, abnormal kidney and/or liver enzymes on blood testing, and specific blood and/or urine testing for Leptospirosis.

Successful treatment ideally consists of aggressive round the clock intravenous fluids and antibiotics. If the kidneys become so inflamed that urine production diminishes, temporary dialysis may be recommended.  Infected dogs should be housed in an isolation ward to protect other hospitalized patients and personnel are advised to wear protective garb (gloves, gown, goggles) as Leptospirosis is considered a zoonotic disease (humans can become infected via contact with infected urine). Yes, such therapy is expensive- far more costly than the price of a vaccination- and in spite of everyone’s best efforts, some dogs do succumb to Leptospirosis.

The Leptospirosis vaccine provides adequate protection for one year and, in theory, the risk of adverse reactions is no different than reported with other vaccinations.  However, some vets feel strongly that the Lepto vaccine is more likely to produce transient “post-vaccine blues” than are other vaccinations.

Is the Leptospirosis vaccination appropriate for your dog?  Talk to your vet to find out whether or not the disease has been reported in your neck of the woods.  Next consider your doggie’s biolifestyle.  Does your pup live in a pristinely kept environment or does he go camping and hiking with you? If your pup lives in an environment with no standing water or exposure to wildlife, the risks of vaccinating clearly outweigh the benefits.  If you and your best buddy love to hike and camp together, vaccinating may be a no-brainer.  As I routinely advise whenever discussing vaccines: Administration of vaccinations is no different than any other medical procedure- they should not be administered without individualized discussion and consideration of the potential risks and benefits.

Have you considered vaccinating your dog for Leptospirosis?  If so, whereabouts do you live and how did you (will you) decide whether to say “yea or nay” to the vaccine?

Best wishes for good health,

Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of  Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

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26 Comments on “A Primer on Leptospirosis

  1. I’m late to the party here. I’m from eastern MA, as is another person who already posted here. I don’t vaccinate for lepto after my eldest dog had a severe reaction to a booster. In this article, Dr. Patricia Jordan notes that there has NEVER been a confirmed case of lepto in dogs in my state:


    This is really curious to me, and I hope to do some more digging on the subject. I have also found that confirmed cases in MA -must- be reported, so it’s unlikely that dogs are being treated quietly.

  2. I vaccinated both of my dogs for lepto, and did the booster, and plan not to vaccinate them again. One dog had a bad vaccine reaction after the booster, and the other one has a metal allergy, so while we do a lot of hiking, I am hoping the initial vaccine set will help give them some protection, even after the first year is up. In fact, the only vaccine we update regularly is rabies, every 3 years, as required by law.

  3. I live in Central Ontario, rurally on a former farm. We frequently see/hear/smell mice, moles, voles, raccoons, skunks, coyotes, etc running around our yard.

    So, I vaccinate for lepto! My vet apparently has personally seen cases of lepto in their clinic, so he did recommend as well.

  4. I regularly show my dogs in AKC events either Conformation or Field events. Since dogs participating in these events come from all over the United States, it is very possible that at least one of them could be affected and most certainly, at some point during the entire day at the grounds, has urinated. I vaccinate all of my dogs for Lepto, even the ones who are too old to travel because they can still be exposed at home from the ones who do travel. I’m not a risk taker when it comes to protecting the health of my dogs.

    Rivervue Borzoi

  5. My old vet claimed that lepto isn’t prevalent around here, but wildlife are prevalent so I’m conflicted. There are bunnies everywhere, and in the apartment complex where I used to live, deer roamed the grounds, including my “backyard” there. A friend in an urban area lost her dog to lepto because her vet told her the same thing and the dog hadn’t been vaccinated.

  6. We live in Ontario. And while living in the city, our dogs are quite the outdoors dogs. We go for hikes, camping and they get to spend weekends at friends’ horse farm. Our guys live in the city but definitely are not city dogs.

    More over, for Jasmine any water is like a magnet. When up North there is this great trail we go to. It must have a hundred puddles at all times, because it’s all rock. She has to walk through and sample every single one of them.

    For the above reasons, we do give Lepto vaccine. Fortunately there has been no adverse reaction to it yet as far as we can tell.

    Daughter’s Chihuahua almost died after her Lepto vaccine though, and the vet wasn’t even supposed to give it!

  7. I live in Colorado Springs, an area abundant with wildlife, and we have been seeing cases of Leptospirosis in our area for the past several years. One of my dog training clients lost a dog to Lepto several years ago so for me it is an easy decision. Since Lepto is life threatening and my dogs are regularly at risk of exposure, all of my dogs are vaccinated annually against Lepto.

  8. I live in the SF Bay Area and do active tracking training with my dogs during the wet months (Nov to April). I vaccinated last year for lepto (for the first time). My dog, who hasn’t had any other vaccination reactions, also had no reaction to this lepto-only vaccine. I expect to continue to vaccinate her every fall as long as we continue to do tracking.

    Appreciate your blog. Thanks.

  9. I live in a neighborhood of Boston and my vet is emphatic about a yearly lepto vaccination. He tells me that they regularly see case here. Although I live in an urban environment, there’s quite a bit of wildlife in the area – raccoons, skunks, foxes, deer, coyotes, etc. My dog has had no apparent reaction to the vaccine, so I see no reason not to give it to him.

  10. Lepto was an issue around West Seattle and Vashon Island in recent years, with dogs getting lepto from contaminated standing water. One of the reasons: raccoons with lepto. But the lepto vaccine doesn’t address the specific form of lepto that shows up, so the vaccine doesn’t help, is the story we get here, even though vets continue to want to vaccinate. Plus the vaccine is particularly tough on animals. I don’t allow vaccines at our house, but I’m sensible. My dogs don’t walk through or are allowed to drink standing water, and we’re not out in situations where they’d be otherwise exposed, although we do have raccoons in our area. I also discussed it with my vet, who is holistically minded and quite sensible. Her advice: save my money for something that would really benefit my kids, which would not be the lepto vaccine.

    The questions would be: if the vaccine really protects against the lepto strain in your area, if your animals are healthy enough to avoid vaccine induced illnesses, and if they are regularly exposed to lepto.

    We’ve had more trouble with vaccines at our house than steering clear of them.

    Thanks for a timely article!

  11. what about herding dogs? I see that sheep can be carriers. what if a dog is a housepet but part-time hobby herder; frequently visiting a farm for sheep herding lessons and attending clinics and trials? would it makes sense to vaccinate that dog for lepto?

  12. The very first Lepto vaccine given to my Min Pin, Kiwi, was when she was a pup. (We live on a wooded & open fields area in Wisconsin that has an abundance of wildlife & some farm ponds.) No sooner had I gotten Kiwi home from the vet & her face started swelling up and she started to have trouble breathing. We had to race back to the vet to get another shot to offset the allergic reaction she had to the Lepto. So that made our decision for us. . . no more Lepto shots for Kiwi. She is now 8 !/2 & loving every minute on her farm.

  13. Hi Linda,

    The first dose of the Leptospirosis vaccination should not be administered until a pup is at least 12 weeks old.

  14. Hi Linda,

    Please read my response to Annette posted above. There are studies that document that protection created by the Leptospirosis vaccination lasts just over a year. I would never try to talk you into or out of vaccinating your dogs for any particular disease. Just as with any other medical procedure, it is important to weigh the risks and benefits.

  15. Hi Karen,

    While the overall risk of adverse vaccine reactions is low, any of them are capable of causing autoimmune issues (the immune system is triggered to begin attacking the body’s own tissues). There is no evidence that the Leptospirosis vaccination is more likely to cause adverse reactions than any other vaccination. However, some vets have the clinical impression that Lepto vaccines are more likely to result in complications. I’m delighted to hear that you are working with a vet who is acting in the best interest of your pets!

  16. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for your honest inquiry. Whenever vaccines are administered without discussing a pet’s biolifestyle, my belief that a disservice is being done. In Speaking for Spot I wrote about Missy, a Bichon Frise who died from complications related to being vaccinated on the same day against Lyme disease and Leptospirosis. As if this wasn’t tragic enough, I learned that she resided in a pristine condominium complex and her feet rarely touched the ground. In my mind it is criminal that Missy was vaccinated for two diseases she would never have been exposed to. Why give a vaccine when there is no benefit to be gained?

  17. Hi Kimberley,

    Yes it is true that for a dog to initiate protective immunity in response to the Leptospirosis vaccination, the first go round involves giving two vaccinations two to four weeks apart. By virtue of the fact that possums, rodents, and raccoons frequent your backyard (and urinate there!), I would suspect that your dogs have possible exposure.

  18. Great article! I live in Maine and I have my dogs vaccinated for Lepto. I live in the country and routinely see all sorts of wildlife in my backyard and while hiking. And, since I can not sample each and every puddle the dogs run through, I feel that this is an easy decision for me.

  19. The timeliness of this article is fantastic! I had just taken my dogs in for their vaccinations and was asked about the lepto vaccine. I hesitated, until I thought of my simple, small backyard pond that my dogs like to walk around in and drink out of (much to the annoyance of my fish, I’m sure!). So I agreed to the vaccine, thinking better safe than sorry. But because it was their first time getting it, I was told they would need a booster shot in a couple of weeks. Is that the case? And really, what are the odds that they would catch lepto from the backyard pond (where I’m sure I have visiting opossums, rats and possibly raccoons)? When we walk where there are creeks, the dogs avoid the water for some reason.

  20. Hi Doc —

    I work for a PetSmart store that houses a Banfield hospital. There has long been a debate as to whether Banfield and others “over vaccinate.” For example, biolifestyles are not a consideration in the world of Banfield. Every dog gets the Lepto vaccine regardless. What are your thoughts? Thanks so much.

  21. Our Sheltie rescue group took in a lepto positive dog (we didn’t know) last summer from an owner who had been living in her vehicle. The dog became sick, along with all the other dogs at the foster home. The foster dog recovered, but two of the other foster dogs have since passed away, weakened substantially by lepto, and one other dog has been seriously damaged (kidney disease). It was a big effort to get the foster home clean, and that foster provider always has her dogs vaccinated against lepto. Most of our other foster homes do not, and we leave the decision up to the vet seeing any particular foster dog. For many years, we were advised against using lepto vaccine for Shelties, told that the vaccine might cause a negative reaction in herding dogs. But, now many of our adopters vaccinate their Shelties against lepto. Very interesting article – thank you very much.

  22. I have heard a lot of conflicting information on the lepto vaccine. Some say it is linked to autimmune or immune-mediated diseases among others and on the oposite end of the spectrum, others say the current vaccines are very safe. I live in a rural area where wildlife is prevelant. We don’t have any ponds or standing water on our property. While my dogs (and foster dogs) don’t run off leash except in my fenced yard, there have been occassional escapes (their Beagles, after all) and I have worried they could come into contact with lepto infected water or soil. Even just walking along the road they might try to sneak a sip from a puddle. I have continued to vaccinate my dogs annually, but I do hear from a lot of people that I may be putting my dogs at risk. With my vet, it’s not about simply vaccinating for the sake of vaccinating and she would not pressure me if I flat out said no, unless it was a life or death situation. So I have stuck with vaccinating every year, but only every 3 years for Parvo, distemper and rabies.

  23. I have heard that the vaccine doesn’t protect against all the strains that are out there, and that the vaccine isn’t even good for a year. Besides that, they say that the Lepto vaccine is one which has a high risk of side effects.

    I know that the vet would recommend the vaccination for my dog, mainly because it is in the vet’s best interests, financially.

    My dog regularly swims in the lake, but we are going to trust that her immunity is good with a healthy diet and a healthy lifestyle and we are going to forego this vaccine.

  24. What age is appropriate to vaccinate for Lepto and is there a risk in vaccinating puppies for Lepto.

  25. Hi Annette,

    Great question! You are correct, there are several different Leptospirosis strains or serovars that can produce infection. Fortunately, the ones that most commonly produce infection are covered in the 4-way vaccine. Additionally, there is thought to be some cross protection created against serovars not included in the 4-way vaccine. While no vaccine is perfect, the Leptospirosis vaccination is certainly worthwhile for dogs with significant risk of exposure.

  26. I thought the lepto vaccine does not protect against all strains of the disease. Is that true? If so vaccinating for dogs with the appropriate biolifestyle could still leave them at risk right? Tough call if so. I guess it’s always risk vs. benefit.